Hmmm...As I sit here a week after returning from my trip to the No Barriers Summit (it has taken me this long to recover from jet lag and the chaos that is called the last week of school in a house with five kids), I have so much to recount and so many conclusions I've drawn. But I have no idea where to start...
So, the beginning seems like a good place, right?
The flights out to CA were as uneventful as things get for a family with a disabled mom and five kids on their first airplane rides. Meaning that our day of travel was hilarious, to an outsider. We must have looked like a gaggle of geese, each with our own rolling suitcase.
At the Charlotte airport, the kids delightedly turned circles, in awe of all the unfamiliar people, sites and sounds. (Except for 14-year-old Ben who was already a travel expert and practically bored after his one-way flight to Ohio a few summers back.) Even our firecracker of a four-year-old, Jeannie, glued herself to my side for most of the time.
Yes, there was excitement (and questions flying) in the air among the Seafords. As we walked down the aisle of the cabin in the plane, Brook and I just kept making eye contact with our fellow passengers, smiling and apologizing, smiling and apologizing. We imagined that the other passengers must be gritting their teeth and wishing they'd taken an earlier or a later flight. To them, the bus system must have been looking better and better. Or at least quieter!
But truthfully, everyone was incredibly gracious and understanding of our chaotic crowd, even when there were more than seven spats over who was sitting next to Jeannie. (I was not innocent in this department - I just wanted to see her reaction when we actually left the ground, OK?) Even the flight attendants offered us mercy - in the way of continually feeding my husband Brook free biscotti and bloody mary's.
Jeannie was wide-eyed and mesmerized at take-off, yet I was dismayed at how quickly she was “done with that show;” she wanted to shut her window shade and play on my iPad. I kept trying to divert her attention to all she could see out the window, but she kept returning to the topics of her next snack, lollipop, or dollar-store prize. Unbelievable.
We had a few blips with connecting flights not leaving enough time for meals; but luckily I had stocked my back pack with granola bars and gummy bears, so we made it to Lake Tahoe without a child fainting from pangs of hunger and thirst.
Yay! We made it Tahoe! And we began to meet some folks who didn't look like the majority of the population. Walking sticks for visual impairments, ASL interpreters for hearing loss, prosthetics, and wheelchairs all became commonplace. But my kids were much more impressed by all the service dogs, who they all knew by name within minutes. Our favorite dog of the weekend, Potter, was a yellow lab who could carry groceries, open doors, and (best of all) take his owner's socks and shoes on and off!
Almost as soon as we got to the resort, I met Sophia, my new seven-year-old hero with several prosthetics that fit on to her shorter arm. She chooses a different one each day, depending on her level of activity. Sophia even has a "sports arm" that she wears to play baseball, basketball, soccer, or to "cirque" practice. Yes, you read that correctly - this little girl who was born without a hand participates in "Cirque De Soleil," specifically aerial dancing and acrobatics. I love her! She has no barriers to sports and no problem making quick friends with my girls. Her mom and I had an instant connection as well. I was going to LOVE this weekend!
And I did. Oh how I did. I think my eyes were opened wider to my surroundings than Jeannie's were when our airplane left the ground! And, a week later, I am still flying.
As I had hoped, I was able to participate in several adaptive adventure sports. I tried an adaptive bike (recumbent-style with hand brakes customized for my prosthetics) on a 15-mile trail that sidled along the Truckee River. I climbed on a rock wall, an activity I'd tried before. But this time I summited the wall, and I gloriously rang the bell at the top!
I kayaked and canoed; and then I surprised even myself by standing on a paddleboard and paddling on Lake Donner. (Praise be to God that I didn't spill into that ice-cold water like my older kids did!)
After three years of obstacle after obstacle, words can't describe what it was like to cycle, paddle, and climb without barriers again. Exhilaration! Laughter! Fear! Gratitude! Reward! Joy! Yes, I experienced all of those! I was amazed that after all this time my muscles remembered what it felt like to have two hands and two feet again! Not only was I able to do the sports I used to do, but I also found myself trying things that I never had before. I was taking more risks, not less; and I felt more confidence in my abilities than ever before. On several different occasions I actually forgot that I was disabled.
I've had the opportunity now to see a few pictures and videos of myself from last weekend. Interestingly, I was almost surprised to see the adaptations, equipment, and people that were assisting and allowing me to cycle, paddle, climb, and move. Because, in the moment, all I'd felt was able! Those adaptations were merely part of me.
Even though I noticed all the help I required, I didn't consider myself "less than," "dis-abled" or "unwhole." Instead, I felt stronger! I knew that, with my team, I could do anything. And I am eager to discover what adventure awaits!
My experience at the No Barriers Summit left me forever changed. But, even more than the adventure sports, it was the personal connections I made that proved to be the most defining of moments. My family and I, we met the coolest, most inspiring people! Paralympic athletes, singers and songwriters, artists and innovators.
We met people like Sarah Herron, the first contestant with a disability to compete on The Bachelor, who now spearheads a nonprofit that builds self-confidence in young girls with disabilities.
Then there was Liz Murray, the author of Homeless to Harvard, her memoir about spending her high school years living on the street but breaking barriers to achieve great things despite the economic, educational, and cultural differences she faced.
And, of course, I need to mention the founder of No Barriers, Eric Weihenmayer. (I got to have breakfast with this amazing man!) Several years ago, this born adventurer wrote a book about his experience as being the first blind man to summit Mount Everest.
His latest book, No Barriers, chronicles his days as the first to solo kayak through the Grand Canyon. He is a quick-witted gentleman who makes everyone in the room feel like their own "barriers" are mere mirage - when Eric is in the room, obstacles disappear.
The Seaford Seven also heard performers like Mandy Harvey. You may know her as the winner of last week's America's Got Talent! She's a deaf singer who takes her shoes off to feel the vibrations and "hears" the tones that help her sing on pitch and in time. The band X Ambassadors played as well; Ben had (of course) heard their music before; and, for about an “instant,” being with his family was cool enough to post on social media. We had arrived!!!
We met people who recognize "No Barriers" standing in the way of their dreams. Because, like the motto claims, "what's within you is stronger than what's standing in your way." Not everyone at the conference was "disabled." Some people and corporations attended for the sheer inspiration the weekend provided. Most were there to financially, physically, or emotionally support some person or group who is disabled. But all attendees were there to live a life without barriers.
Cabinets to Go was the corporate sponsor who donated the funds to bring my whole family to the Summit. A national company, they sponsored one person (or one family, as in our case), to travel to the conference. We had breakfast with the attendees representing Cabinets-to-go, and they thanked us for coming jusr as greatly and just as often as we thanked them. Their generosity and compassion was truly humbling.
An entirely unexpected result of our trip was what No Barriers did for our family unit. Yes, it helped my children learn to accept and interact with all sorts of people from all walks of life. Yes, it celebrated my kids' adventurous spirits and their courage in untried and unproven activities like archery, kayaking, and paddleboarding - even trying new foods! And yes, it increased my kids' self-confidence as they talked to new people of all ages, ethnicities, and abilities.
But the No Barriers Summit weekend also changed the culture in my family to that of a team! We worked together to find gate C6 in Phoenix, to keep each other's attitudes in check when we hungrily awaited the extremely late shuttle bus to the hotel, and to plan our days so that everyone got to do an activity they enjoyed. Before I knew it, I was commenting to Brook that the kids were all playing well, together!, in the pool. They didn't fight over who sat together on the flight home. And don't tell anyone this; but Caroline's head exhaustedly fell onto Ben's shoulder on the car ride home from the airport. (Don't worry: they are back to fighting like cats and dogs.)
Even before our weekend in California, I knew that my family could survive all kinds of trauma. But, for three years now, (ever since I got sepsis), we've been operating with an underlying tension in our family, always looking over our shoulders for the next trauma to hit. There was grief and healing that had yet to occur.
The No Barriers Summit taught us that, together, we can not only survive after a trauma, but thrive. Collectively, we've learned to let go, relax, take risks, trust, help others, and have fun together. We're looking forward to the next adventure that life will offer.
The point is (and perhaps this is the point) that our family unit is stronger than anything that may come in our way. With organizations like No Barriers, and with inspiring heroes like Sophia, Marlee Matlin, Mandy Harvey, and Eric Weihenmayer to inspire me and show me the way, I am stronger than my amputations. With innovators like Ottobock Prosthetics, Adventure Sports, Cycledifferent and more, we come away stronger than whatever’s in our way! And with nonprofits and foundations like No Barriers, people with disabilities like mine are encouraged and underwritten to have amazing experiences like this one as well as my ski trip with Adaptive Sports Association in Durango, Colorado, as well as my First Cycle, First Swim, First Dance, and First Climb experiences through OPAF (Orthotic and Prosthetic Activities Foundation). See my blog posts, "Independence" and "I Am A Skier".
What a weekend, what a trip.
** If you would like to donate or to co-sponsor a participant for the 2018 No Barriers Summit (in New York City!), click here.